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Articles / Influential Native Americans and Where They Went to College

Influential Native Americans and Where They Went to College

Written by Sam Jaquez | Nov. 14, 2022
Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

In honor of Native American Heritage month, let’s take a look at some influential Native Americans and where they went to college!

November is Native American Heritage Month, a dedicated period wherein we can celebrate Native people and their history, traditions, cultures, and contributions. The following are a few famous and notable Native Americans who have or are currently making significant impacts in their respective fields.

Sharice Davids – University of Missouri–Kansas City, Cornell Law School


In addition to being one of the first two Native American women to be elected to congress (along with Deb Haaland), Sharice Davids was also the first LGBTQ+ Native American woman elected to congress. She has been serving as the Kansas’s 3rd congressional district representative since 2019.

Sharice Davids attended Johnson County Community College, The University of Kansas, and the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration. She then went on to study at and graduate from Cornell Law School as a Doctor of Law.

Deb Haaland – University of New Mexico, UNM School of Law

Deb Haaland is a Laguna Pueblo politician who was one of the first two (along with Sharice Davis) Native American women to be elected to congress. Additionally, Haaland was appointed as Secretary of the Interior in 2021. When she was promoted to the role, she became the first Native American and third ever woman to serve as Secretary of the Interior.

Deb Haaland graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in English and from UNM’s School of Law as a Doctor of Law.

Joy Harjo – University of New Mexico, University of Iowa


Joy Harjo is a Creek and Muscogee writer of award-winning poems, novels, and more. In 2019 she became the first Native American to be appointed as a Poet Laurate of the United States. As Poet Laureate she served three terms, between 2019 and 2022.

Joy Harjo graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in creative writing and from The University of Iowa with an MFA in creative writing.

Sterlin Harjo – The University of Oklahoma

Sterlin Harjo is a filmmaker from the Seminole and Muscogee Nations of Oklahoma. He is the co-creator (along with Taika Waititi) and showrunner for the award-winning TV series, Reservation Dogs, which is celebrated for an all-indigenous crew of writers, directors, and actors.

Sterlin Harjo studied art and film at the University of Oklahoma.

John Herrrington – University of Colorado–Colorado Springs, University of Idaho


John Herrington is a former US Naval aviator, engineer, and NASA Astronaut. In 2002, Herrington became the first Native American in space when he severed as a mission specialist for the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s STS-113 mission. During his time at the International Space Station, he also performed three space walks, which have been commemorated as artwork on the 2019 one dollar coin.

John Herrington graduated from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs with bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics, from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School with a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, and from the University of Idaho with a PhD in education.

Susan La Flesche Picotte – Hampton University

Susan La Flesche Picotte was an Omaha doctor and social reformer of the late 1900s. She is known for being the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree and become a doctor. Additionally, she was the first person to find funding for her education through federal aid.

Susan La Flesch Picotte graduated from Hampton University as salutatorian in 1886 and from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in as valedictorian in 1889.

Nicole Mann – US Naval Academy, Stanford University

Nicole Mann, Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, is a U.S. Marine Corps Colonel and current NASA astronaut. On October 5, 2022, while aboard NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission, she became the first Indigenous woman in space.

Nicole Mann graduated with a BS in mechanical engineering from the US Naval Academy and an MS in mechanical engineering from Stanford University.

Chester Nez – The University of Kansas


Chester Nez was recruited to serve as a Marine in World War II in 1942 and served as a Navajo Code Talker with the Marine Corps’ 382nd Platoon where he helped create the two-layer code system used by the military during the war. Nez cowrote a novel, Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII which detailed his experiences. In 2000, Nez was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his distinguished achievements and contributions to the military and for being a military pioneer during World War II.

Chester Nez attended The University of Kansas where he studied fine arts until the funds from his GI Bill caused him to discontinue his studies. Nez was the last living member of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers when he was finally awarded his bachelor’s degree in 2012.

Tommy Orange – Institute of American Indian Arts

Tommy Orange is a Cheyenne and Arapaho writer best known for his New York Times best-selling novel There, There, for which he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of several awards including the National Book Award for Fiction in 2019.

Tommy Orange earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Charitie Ropati – Columbia University

Chartie Ropati is a Yup’ik & Sāmoan education activists and student. While attending her high school in Alaska, Ropati created a Native-centric curriculum to replace the outdated Alaskan Studies class curriculum. Additionally, her activitism helped change a law that now allows Anchorage School District students to wear cultural regalia at graduation. Ropati’s efforts and impact have been highlighted by several organizations and publications over the years including Champions for Change, The Malala Fund, most recently in Teen Vogue, and more.

Chartie Ropati is currently a student at Columbia University where she is studying civil engineering and anthropology with emphasis on the intersections of ice, ecology & resilience; or how climate change affects Indigenous communities.

Annie Dodge Wauneka – University of Arizona, University of New Mexico


Annie Dodge Wauneka was a public health activist and leader who served in several high positions as she worked to improve the health and welfare of the people of the Navajo Nation. She also created the first English-Navajo medical dictionary as a way to increase communication and help from doctors and medical professionals. Wauneka served on the advisory board of the U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Public Health Service, and in 1963 she became the first Native American to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Annie Dodge Wauneka graduated with a degree in public health from the University of Arizona. She was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Humanities from the University of New Mexico for her lifelong efforts in public health.


Don’t forget to join the CC Community for more discussion on Native American Heritage Month!

Written by


Sam Jaquez

Sam is a freelance writer. She studied at the University of Massachusetts Boston where she earned a degree in English.

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